Enforced Happiness

Enforced Happiness

‘Tis the season to be jolly. But what if you’re not?

I’m revisiting one of my articles from December 2000 this month, because the subject is very much on my mind. Each year, from Thanksgiving until New Year’s Day, we enter the Season of Enforced Happiness.

Merchants and advertisers rejoice. There are visual and gustatory delights everywhere, and at least in our culture, excess is the rule rather than the exception.

Though the season can truly be a time of great joy marked by family reunions, cherished religious holidays, and acknowledged blessings, it can also be a time of significant stress. Folks continue their usual work routines and necessary responsibilities of house and home. There are mundane chores and routine financial commitments that do not cease with the holidays.

In addition, there are presents to be bought, a host of cards and packages to mail, and parties big and small to attend. In essence, it’s a time of doing everything we normally do while piling activities and obligations onto already full schedules. And, all the while, we should be joyful. After all, it’s the Holiday Season!

Several decades ago, I dubbed this time of year the Season of Enforced Happiness. You see, whether we’re happy or not, we should be. And, if in fact, we’re physically ill, terribly stressed with mounting commitments, or frankly depressed, we feel an obligation to put on that cheerful facade of holiday merriment.

Let’s look at the stressors of these weeks beginning with Thanksgiving and ending with New Year’s Day and consider strategies to maintain sanity in the season of Santa. How do we handle the additional demands on our time, our energies, and our emotions? Let’s consider three strategies each of us can use to make the holiday season more personally joyful.

First, prioritize goals and make a schedule. Obviously, in this season of excess, it will be truly impossible to do everything offered or considered. Accordingly, make a list of tasks and activities and prioritize them on the basis of urgency and personal meaning. If it seems that certain tasks must be done, schedule them first and don’t procrastinate. Shopping for family gifts, trimming the tree, specific baking tasks, and a traditional home or office party might fall into this first category.

But, if one or more traditions has rarely provided much joy during the holidays, especially if they’re terribly time consuming (e.g. baking cakes for everyone in the neighborhood or mailing 100s of Christmas cards to people who don’t enter your mind the rest of the year), place them in the low-priority category, and get to them if you have a chance, or perhaps, omit them totally from the schedule this year.

Streamline tasks whenever possible. One big shopping trip for groceries and decorations will be much less time consuming than multiple small trips. Lists and schedules keep us organized and provide a sense of accomplishment as items are checked off. More importantly, defined goals help us to feel more in control and help to diminish our sense of stress. So, be realistic when making schedules–remembering that a certain amount of flexibility will help to accommodate the inevitable, unexpected interruptions.

Second, focus on positive expectations, and exercise options. Part of the Enforced Happiness of this season includes traditional gatherings with family, neighbors, and co-workers. Inevitably, we have relatives or associates who bore us or make us uncomfortable.

Rather than dreading another unwelcome party, just politely “Regret” and take a long winter walk in the park instead. Or, if it’s a function that can’t be refused, plan ahead which people to spend time with and which ones to avoid. We can diffuse a tremendous amount of stress by finding a meaningful perspective on upcoming events and remembering to exercise our options to nurture ourselves.

Finally, remember to exercise and relax. Such a simple concept, but so many of us put these vital aspects of good health on the back burner to do “when we have time”–and the time never comes. Exercise counterbalances the anxiety that typifies the frenetic holiday pace. It stimulates circulation, burns calories and actually relaxes us at the same time. And, it helps to counter the average 7-pound weight gain that most adult Americans have between Thanksgiving and New Year’s Day.

I discussed the merits of “Time Outs” in an earlier article (https://www.hinesite2020.md/time-out/), and there’s certainly no better time of year to reap the benefits than during the days of Enforced Happiness.

In summary, the three strategies: 1) Have scheduled, prioritized goals, 2) Create positive, realistic expectations for upcoming holiday functions (remembering to tailor them to enhance personal enjoyment), and 3) Dedicate time for exercise and relaxation can all help to defuse holiday stress, and allow us to enjoy the season as we should. It can be a wonderful time for affirming commitments to family, friends, and community.

While on that subject, I urge us all to be mindful of folks we know to be challenged by illness or saddened by circumstances. Consider the season from the perspective of someone struggling to maintain a healthy lifestyle in the year-end excess of parties and calories. Think of overburdened, weary caregivers, patients struggling with progressive illness, and folks burdened with overwhelming year-end deadlines or dwindling financial resources. Think of people grieving the loss of a child, a spouse, a parent, or a dear friend since the last holiday season, especially if holiday traditions were built on relationships with these deceased loved ones.

For all such individuals, it can be a tough progression of weeks to be endured rather than enjoyed. Remember that small acts of kindness frequently bring joy to both giver and receiver. Loving acknowledgement of another’s holiday struggles can be a powerful boomerang blessing.

Viktor E. Frankl, one of the best-known Holocaust survivors, penned these powerful words: “Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.”

In the holiday season, there are stimuli everywhere! Animated parties, festivals of lights, ubiquitous decorations, the lure of merchants large and small, meaningful religious celebrations, and cherished community events all tantalize. The momentum can easily propel us from one function to the next. In such abundance, an intentional pause provides the opportunity to choose options that are feasible as well as personally meaningful.

The stopwatch has clicked, the race to year’s end has begun, and the Season of Enforced Happiness is upon us. Let’s be intentional in creating the space each of us needs to choose activities and create rituals that will enrich our lives and honor our unique spiritual natures. When we acknowledge that we really are in charge of our actions and our schedules, we’ll prioritize according to our own interests and needs. In so doing, we’ll decrease personal stress and enhance our opportunity for genuine happiness.


S.L. Hines, MD

November 2016